The death of the Nigerian militant Islamist group Boko Haram's head has been verified by a rival extremist party, which claims it carried out the assassination on the orders of the Islamic State's leadership thousands of miles away in the Middle East.
Abubakar Shekau, one of the world's most infamous Islamic militant leaders, died last month after detonating an explosive device while being followed by fighters from the Islamic State West African Province (Iswap). Iswap fighters had overrun Shekau's headquarters in the Sambisa forest, a stretch of strategically significant dense forest in Nigeria's northeast.
His death was both a source of joy and embarrassment for Nigerian and international security services, which had spent a decade focusing their efforts on finding Shekau.
The fact that the operation against Shekau was launched on the direct orders of Isis's Middle East leadership, which is concerned about Boko Haram's indiscriminate targeting of "believers," highlights the group's continued global reach through its affiliates and the possibility of further expansion in Africa.
In recent months, Islamic extremist bands across the Sahel have increased their attacks, bringing new levels of carnage to some locations. In one of the deadliest such murders ever recorded, more than 120 villagers were killed in an attack in Burkina Faso last week. There has been no claim of responsibility made by any group.
The Iswap leader, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, can be heard telling followers on an audiotape obtained by Humangle, a respected local news website with strong contacts among insurgents and counter-terrorist agencies, that Shekau's death was ordered by the new leader of Islamic State, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi.
“[Shekau] was a terrorist of unbelievable proportions. How many has he thrown away? How many people has he murdered? How many people has he enslaved? Allah, on the other hand, left him alone and extended his life. According to a story on the Humangle website, “When the time came, Allah dispatched courageous soldiers after receiving orders from the head of the believers.”
Following personal, theological, and strategic disagreements, Barnawi's division split from Boko Haram in 2016. After Shekau proved impossible to govern, the Islamic State's leadership in Iraq and Syria designated the unit as an affiliate in the region.
According to Vincent Foucher, an expert on Islamist extremism in Nigeria with the International Crisis Group, Barnawi, who is viewed as a relative moderate among extremist leaders in the region, was granted the leadership post by an "auditing mission" sent from the Middle East by Isis earlier this year.
Shekau first evaded the onslaught on the Sambisa jungle by hiding for five days from Iswap fighters, according to Barnawi's testimony.
When Shekau was apprehended, he escaped again, was apprehended again, and then refused to submit. Though most of his followers are believed to have disbanded or switched allegiances, Barnawi's authority is being challenged by at least one of the numerous Boko Haram factions.
Shekau was responsible for the kidnapping of 300 female students from a college in 2014, which garnered international headlines, as well as the use of young women and girls as suicide bombers. His unpredictability and proclivity for the most extreme and violent techniques explain why he was ordered to be killed.
With the execution of the former street youngster, Iswap now holds the title of being the most powerful Islamic extremist group in the Lake Chad basin.